Unlike the iconic Ft. Wayne NJ garden store that inspired its name, Fountains of Wayne are still very much open for business. In fact, their new album Sky Full of Holes sounds like a whole new beginning for the band and its powerhouse songwriting duo Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. Called, ''full-fledged art heroes'' by The Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau, FOW continue their reign as pop music masters, while Collingwood and Schlesinger also explore new frontiers within their unique respective songwriting aesthetics. Ranging from high-energy power pop to intimate, acoustic-driven ballads, Sky Full of Holes tracks ''The Summer Place'' and ''Richie And Ruben'' showcase the band's renowned storytelling abilities and flair for creating memorable characters; elsewhere, the album takes a more impressionistic approach, as in the shimmering ''Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart'' and the elegiac ''Cemetery Guns.'' Sky Full of Holes is Fountains' most successful distillation of their musical maxims to date, but it's also a whole hell of a lot of fun.
Wise guys with flashes of empathy: that's Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger, who collaborate in Fountains of Wayne. Since 1996 they have been writing finely observed, neatly rhymed character studies set to sleekly produced pop-rock.
They take their time. ''Sky Full of Holes,'' the fifth studio album by Fountains of Wayne, is their first since 2007, and the songs cut back on smirking. The album title comes from a line imagining how a 21-gun salute leaves a ''sky full of holes'' at a military funeral, in a kindly song called ''Cemetery Guns,'' a march accented by snare-drum rolls.
''Action Hero'' starts out describing a Walter Mitty-like family man on an unglamorous dinner out with the kids at ''a small Vietnamese on East 11th Street,'' and the chiming, heroic music sounds like easy irony. Then it turns out the man is getting bad news from his hospital tests, and his fantasies about ''racing against time'' to save the world turn poignant.
There's comedy too. Perpetually deluded hipster entrepreneurs ''Richie and Ruben'' invest in a boutique called Debris that for some reason can't sell a ripped, stained $1,100 T-shirt. In ''Acela,'' a bored guy riding to Boston realizes his girlfriend isn't meeting him on the train after all: ''All alone on the Acela/Tell me baby where the hell are you?'' There's a happier ending in ''Radio Bar''; after hanging out nightly at a bar where he's ''sinking lower and lower,'' the narrator suddenly meets a girl who asks, ''Why don't we go somewhere?'' That must be why there were peppy horns and strings all along.
Fountains of Wayne's music has its heart in the 1970's of the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, Stealers Wheel and Nick Lowe, full of strummed acoustic and electric guitars, repeated octaves on the piano and wordless vocal-harmony choruses. Mr. Collingwood's nasal lead vocals can't help sounding twerpy and a little sarcastic.
But this album warms up to its characters. In ''Hate to See You Like This,'' which holds some echoes of ''Born to Run,'' the singer tries to revitalize a girl who sounds clinically depressed or worse. And even if Mr. Collingwood and Mr. Schlesinger can't resist a couplet as neat as ''Let's get your phone reconnected/Let's get this room disinfected,'' it also sounds as if they care about the people. --Jon Pareles